Monday, January 22, 2007

The Front: Crown-Petty loop

Mark Hertenstein below Crown Mountain

Getting some turns 

H. Wayne Phillips looks surprisingly fresh as he comes out in the dark
I’m on a cross country ski exploration of the Front.
Last week we found great telemark skiing in the elk meadows below Fairview Peak.
This week the idea was to see if we could drive as far as the Crown Mountain trailhead on the Benchmark Road west of Augusta.
I figured if we could get there we could try the Petty-Crown loop beneath Crown Mountain.
We were in luck and found the road clear to within half a mile of the trailhead. This has been an unusual winter in that the road is blown clear beyond the usual winter stopping point, which is about the Lewis and Clark National Forest boundary marker not far from the Ford Creek Ranch.
I was surprised to find lots of cabin-owner/snowmobile activity along the road this early Sunday morning. We were greeted at the trailhead by a friendly cabin owner on his snowmobile graciously offering his cabin for the night if we didn’t make it out before sunset.
On the way in on the road I was keen to see bighorn sheep. Every other time I’ve been here in the winter I’ve found bands of them. As I looked up to a ridgeline I was treated to the sight of two majestic bull elk, some of the biggest I’ve ever seen, posing like they wanted onto a calendar. There was a considerable herd of mule deer below them, with some large bucks with glorious racks. On the way out were saw about 40 bighorns, so my day was complete!
The Petty-Crown loop traverses a high ridge just east of Crown Mountain. It begins with a climb of the Crown Mountain trail to its junction with Petty Creek below a high saddle, where during the summer there is a logical spot to begin climbing the peak. It’s downhill from here, where you lose all the elevation the next four miles where you pick up the trail to the Petty-Ford divide. When you reach the divide it descends steeply to Ford Creek near the Double Falls where there’s a campground. We were able to cross the creek on a thick layer of ice. Then it was back a half-mile or so where the car was parked.
Now that’s theoretically how we planned the trip.
It didn’t turn out so neatly, though.
Just before we got to the junction of Petty-Crown, we sat in the sun and had a snack before gaining a little more elevation and telemarking in snow just east of the Crown Mountain massif.
Then we dropped to the Petty Creek bottom and began hunting for the trail.
We never did find it and spent the afternoon wandering across one steep drainage after another.
We got hemmed into some fairly confined old-growth spruce bottoms and on several occasions found it easier to take off our skis and walk.
There’s no doubt we should have stayed nearer the bottom where the trail hugs the north side of Petty Creek, a couple hundred feet above it.
As we worked our way up the mountain the views of Crown and the ridge to the south popped into view, as did Haystack and Steamboat mountains.
And, just as the sun began to set we found the Ford-Petty trail just beneath the divide.
The Ford Creek side was too icy and rocky to do much else than take off the skis and walk down.
I was pleasantly surprised to see cross country ski activity on the north sides of the Crown and Ford creeks’ sides. It is good to see folks using this country.
It was good to find out we could accomplish this 10-mile loop in a winter backcountry trip --- even if we did thrash around off trail much of the afternoon.

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